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Chapter 74: Valedictory

May 23, 1904
9:15 pm
John B Stetson University Auditorium
Deland, Florida

The program for Emmett’s college graduation. Source: Stetson University Archives

The auditorium was crowded, hot and stifling, with guests in finery and suits, students, and graduates wearing three-piece suits under silk robes. Even though it was after 9 pm, men were fanning themselves with their straw hats and ladies who had not brought fans were using the programs, desperately trying to stir up the air —

A photo of the auditorium from 1903, during a chapel session. Source: Stetson University Archives

— I looked forward to this day for months. Funny, though; my anticipation didn’t include uncontrollable physical discomfort; in addition to the heat, the air in the room was heavy with perfume, stale tobacco and perspiration. The smells added to my anxiety, as I sat tensely on my folding chair, first student, first row — as befitting the valedictorian for the Stetson University Class of 1904 Law School. 

Billy Crawford, president of our class, was the master of ceremonies, making the introductions along with clever remarks and commentary. Sweat was now trickling down my back. I shifted a little, trying to put a little space between my clammy back and the graduation gown. Dammit, Crawford, just get on with it —

William “Billy” Bloxham Crawford. Source: The Argo, 1902, Florida State University Archives

— suddenly, I heard my name — Crawford called me to the podium to give the valedictory address. 

I prepared for this moment intensely for several day, and yet I felt my stomach flip over at least three or four times. Bile rose in my mouth — I honestly thought I was going to vomit at that moment — I swallowed.

There was a great deal of applause and cheers from the fellows in the front rows of the audience: Junior and sophomore law students, several of my friends, even my brother Cephas was there. My friends shouted my name. It was loud and raucous, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was terrified. 

Somehow, I made it to the podium. All I could do was stand there a few moments. My notes were in front of me, already placed on the podium, but I could not see the words. I shuffled the pages, then gripped the edges of the podium to stop shaking. I took a breath and looked up.

Paul Carter. My best friend. He sitting on the aisle, second row, on the right, almost in the center of the auditorium, looking directly at me.  He gave me a small smile, a slight nod.

I licked my lips, took a deep breath: 

“Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed faculty, my fellow graduates, honored guests….”

I glanced down at my notes only once — I had memorized the speech, thank God; otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten through it. 

When I finished, there was a pause. It felt as if I were teetering on the edge of a terrible precipice — and then, the room erupted into loud, thunderous applause and cheers. Several men — including Cephas — were on their feet. Thank God. I was safe. I did not fail. I remained at the podium for a few moments; Dean Farrah came over and shook my hand, said words of congratulations I suppose — I couldn’t hear anything he said over the din of the room and my heartbeat pounding inside my head — as I retook  my seat on the stage. 

What’s funny is that even after all that work I did to commit that speech to memory, including the words, expressions, even the gestures for weeks to get it perfect — I completely forgot all of it immediately after the ceremony. As soon as the program concluded, and our tiny class of eight law school graduates processed out of the auditorium, we were mobbed! Everyone wanted to shake our hands; my classmates and friends were suddenly all around me pumping my arm, patting me on the shoulder, and praising me for the best valedictory speech ever given at Stetson. I was elated, empowered, happy. I’d never felt that way before. 

“You were incredible,” Crawford told me afterwards. “I’ve never heard you speak like that before. I’ve never seen you this way before; everyone was rapt with attention to what you were saying. It was magical, powerful, startling, even.”

Eventually, Crawford, Cephas, Paul and I made it out of the auditorium and the crowds, and over to a private reception at Nick Van Sant’s house for the law school graduates. As we walked over to the Van Sant’s from the Auditorium, we passed Chaudoin Hall. Crawford nudged me.

Nicholas Van Sant. Source: Ancestry.com

“Are you going to ask Pearl to come to the reception? I’m sure Old Man Van Sant won’t mind; some of the fellows are bringing their girls along too.”

“No thanks,” I said. Cephas caught my eye; unspoken warning, maybe? I only shrugged at him in response, looked away.

Crawford gave me a surprised look. You’re passing up a chance to see Pearl while she’s here? What gives?”

“Nothing.”

Crawford was perplexed. “Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll go say hello and tell her to come along to the reception.”

“Suit yourself,” I said. “Come on, Carter and Ceph; don’t want to be late.”

Crawford stopped on the sidewalk in front of me. “I thought you and Pearl were getting serious.”

“Yeah, she did think that,” I said.

Crawford stared at me for a moment.  Then, quietly: “Say. I know this is none of my business, but what’s going on?”

“It didn’t work out, that’s all.”

“Since when? Before commencement, she said she was looking forward to seeing you, to meeting Ceph….”

“Well, she was mistaken,” I said.

“I see,” Crawford said, looking at me seriously. Then he shrugged. “All right. Forget it. Let’s go on to Van Sant’s.”

We started walking again, this time in silence, passing the brightly lit women’s dormitory behind. At one point, I glanced over my shoulder to look at the dorm, and a woman who looked very much like Pearl was standing on the front steps, watching us.

I don’t know how long the woman had been there, but she remained, watching us as we walked away.

Categories: Book Family Florida History In Emmett's Words

jsmith532

Professor
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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